Stories in Washington

Harnessing Nature's Ebbs and Flows

By Sara Adams, freelance writer

Aerial view of a valley with floodplains.
Overlooking the Fraser River Floodwaters inundated communities across the Fraser River Valley. © The Cosmonaut, CC BY-SA 2.5 CA, via Wikimedia

Floodplains are some of the most productive landscapes on our planet. They filter excess sediment and nutrients as the water seeps downward, refilling aquifers that supply fertile working lands. They buffer temperature fluctuations and decrease water speed, thereby creating perfect conditions for habitats to bound with biodiversity. Their natural infrastructure buffers against flooding and erosion.

Further, the dynamic ecosystems that occur where the ebbs and flows of a river meet with the land are the cultural, spiritual and economic cornerstones of many communities.

Just north of the Washington border lies the Salish Sea’s largest river, the Fraser River. Its watershed drains a quarter of all the land in British Columbia, creating hundreds of miles of productive floodplains. Notably, it is Canada’s largest producer of wild salmon.

Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have tended the land and waters from the river’s headwaters in the Canadian Rocky Mountains to its mouth in the Strait of Georgia. The Lower Fraser River Valley is the most populous area of the watershed and currently home to 31 First Nations. However, increasingly frequent and compounding climate-change-related events threaten the lives and livelihoods of those communities.

Over the course of seven days in November 2021, two atmospheric rivers brought down more than 12 inches of rain across the Pacific Northwest. In the aftermath of that summer’s record-breaking heat wave and wildfires, soils quickly reached their capacity to absorb and store water, resulting in widespread flooding and landslides.

Two satellite images of floodplains.
A Comparison The left is a photo of the Fraser River from 2011; the right was taken on November 17, 2021, showing the floods from space. © The Earth Observatory/NASA, @Cmdr_Hadfield/X

In the Lower Fraser River Valley, floodplains drowned in nearly five feet of water and sediment. More than 1,000 farms, 15,000 hectares of land and 14,000 residents were impacted. Due to their multi-year life cycle, impacts on salmon populations may not be fully known for five years.

After the water receded, communities reflected on whether the road to recovery should include rebuilding old systems.

Cyclic attempts to control water flow through levees, dikes and dredging often fail to incorporate current best practices and result in issues downstream. Disparate funding can disincentivize cross-sector, long-term solutions. Centralized power structures and inadequate data prohibit decision-making by communities on the frontlines.

From communities to capitals, flood experts to farmers, there is a growing consensus that more resilient, comprehensive, locally driven strategies are needed.

A flooded urban area.
Floodplains in Action November 2021 storms inundated rivers throughout the Pacific Northwest including the Skagit and Fraser Rivers, pointing to the value of well-managed floodplains. © SounderBruce, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From Flood to Floodplain: An Integrated Approach in Washington

Back in Washington, a multi-sector team has spent the past 10 years working together to develop a model that moves from flood management to floodplain management, known as Floodplains by Design.

Central to the model’s success is collaboration; finding opportunity in a confluence of priorities and stakeholders. What started as a vision for better floodplain governance has grown into an ambitious public-private partnership. Floodplains by Design (FbD) now includes a grant program led by the Washington Department of Ecology, a network of local agencies, tribes, organizations, landowners implementing solutions, and a “backbone” team led by the Bonneville Environmental Foundation with support from American Rivers.

“Since 2013, FbD has restored miles of river, established recreation areas, reduced flood risk, improved working lands and created jobs. In this current funding cycle, we are administering $64.5 million across 11 projects,” says Mary Huff, floodplain management unit supervisor at the Washington Department of Ecology.

Aerial view of floodplains with mountains in the distance.
Floodplain in Action Restoration projects of Fisher Slough, Livingston Bay and Fir Island Farm have transformed Washington’s Skagit River Delta into a floodplain that works for people and nature. © Marlin Greene/One Earth Images

The program has mobilized unprecedented levels of public and private funding, resulting in more durable, cost-effective solutions. For each acre of floodplain that is reconnected, flood risk is reduced for nearly three homes or structures. For every $1 spent on floodplain management, $7 would have been spent on recovery post event.

A Confluence of Ideas

Following the November 2021 flooding event, an Indigenous-led coalition looking to more effectively and equitably mitigate future flood risk formed. The Lower Fraser River Floodplains Coalition (formerly the Build Back Better Together Collaborative) brings together expertise from floodplain management and ecology to law and systems thinking. The group is guided by the Indigenous-led Coast Salish Emergency Planning Secretariat, who serves the flood management needs of the 31 First Nations residing in the Lower Fraser River Valley.

Central to flood management success is a comprehensive strategy.

“We are finding that we must seek solutions that consider the people and ecosystems upstream, downstream and everywhere in between. Those that have lived in relationship to these river systems for millennia must be at the table as we design holistic solutions for the future. Working in this way is not only smart, but also satisfies the requirements of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
—First Nations Chief Tyrone McNeil, Stó:lō Tribal Council President

Through a series of structured conversations, the coalition began mapping a new way forward to support local leaders, modernize funding mechanisms and move from reactive recovery to proactive management against climate change.

“The responsibility for flood management currently lands largely in the hands of local governments and First Nations with varying levels of capacity and little coordinating support. Our coalition is working to provide a principled collaborative process that centers community-level decision-making to enable solutions that are co-created, well-informed and benefit everyone’s needs,” says Dan Straker, project manager at Resilient Waters.

Harnessing Momentum

Beyond the Pacific Northwest, the Floodplains by Design model is piquing interest across the United States and around the world. In response, The Nature Conservancy and a network of partners are designing an accelerator program to develop more collaborative floodplain management systems—ones that foster the relationships and innovation required to move beyond the status quo and respond to intertwined challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and inequity.

Recent flooding events along the Mississippi River are fueling a growing interest in creating Floodplains by Design-like programs, says Shelly Morris, The Nature Conservancy’s director of floodplain strategies in Kentucky and Tennessee. “But there is need for this kind of work throughout the Mississippi River Basin, so we hope to expand from there.”

Across the ocean, Erik van Eyndhoven, director of conservation at The Nature Conservancy in New Zealand, echoes the sentiment: “The flooding events we saw at the start of 2023 in New Zealand were catastrophic. We see what worked in Washington—we want to better understand the nuts and bolts of the model so that we can develop a more effective approach in our own backyards.”

While there are central tenets that have contributed to the model’s success, Floodplains by Design is less of a formula and more of an approach—one that breaks down siloes at both the community-relationship level and the government-funding level and empowers communities to design durable, multiple-benefit solutions that work for them.

“Floodplains by Design will look different in every context, and it should. By sharing what we have learned, we hope we can help empower decision-making grounded in local needs and design solutions that ultimately leave communities aligned and ecosystems more resilient.”

—Bob Carey, TNC in Washington's director of strategic partnerships and founder of the FbD initiative

Taking a page out of nature’s notebook, there is a huge opportunity to harness our collective power to carve a new path forward in floodplain management.